Updated: Sep 26, 2020
One memory that played out every year when I was a Learning Specialist was seeing my middle school students come in after a writing lesson. It wasn’t the first essay they had ever written and it wasn’t the first lesson they ever had on the writing process. Five, ten, fifteen minutes would pass and every couple minutes I would prompt them to get started. I would wait to see if they would ask for help, how many of them would know how to start, and what they would do to cope. Most of them would sit at their table with a blank stare and motionless. Others would fiddle with their pencil, some flying in the air. Some students would catch my eye and fumble about pretending to get to work. It was the dreaded essay, and I felt for them. It is a daunting task and even if they had done it several times they still felt overwhelmed. Where should they start? What did the teacher say again? What makes a good thesis statement? It’s not a skill that comes naturally for everyone and it doesn’t necessarily get easier after a few attempts.
Even though pre-writing and writing ideas are taught, it’s difficult for kids to implement. Teachers are also trying their best, often reading 25 plus essays, working on drafting, editing and providing one on one and small group support when time allows. The writing process is complex and multi-layered. Students need strategies to help them learn the process of writing, which should be emphasized both at school and at home. Here are some strategies that should be focused on to help students achieve success.
1. Pre-writing/Graphic Organizers
I tell my students all the time, this is the most important part of writing. Students should be spending most of their time on this process. Graphic organizers are wonderful tools if used properly. You can find many free ones online, just make sure the one you select is a good fit for the type of assignment. I’ve seen many students fill them out only to start typing their essay completely from scratch. Students need to be taught how to use this tool and how to transfer it’s content to the actual writing portion of the process.
2. What Does Every Essay Need?
Every essay is comprised of certain elements and a framework (thesis, details, conclusion, etc). Students need to understand that and see it broken down. Graphic organizers can help with that too!
3. What the point?
Remember to tell your kids the topic/thesis sentence drives the essay. What is it all about? And when they read the details do they relate back to the topic sentence?
Color coding works wonders for some kids. Find the thesis and color it blue, highlight the details/evidence pink, etc.
5. Just Write and Edit Later
Don’t worry about spelling or grammar in the first draft. The first draft is to simply get the ideas flowing and written out.
6. Transition Words and Descriptive Vocabulary
Keep a list of transition words next to students as they write so they know how to move from one topic to another. Also a thesaurus or a list of adjectives will help them come up with descriptive words (but use wisely)! Once I had a student read me a sentence that used several fantastic words from a thesaurus but the sentence itself was gibberish. As much as I appreciated their attempt to use new vocabulary, big words do not equate to better writing.
7. Look at Writing Samples
For example, how is a persuasive essay formatted? What tone, how is it organized, what facts and/or opinions are included? Or even discuss it while reading together. How does an author structure their ideas? How do they use dialogue?
8. Read it Out Loud
Does it sound like you are staying on topic? Too many details? Not enough details? Hearing their words out loud will give them the opportunity to analyze what they have completed.
9. Let Them Find Their Voice
It’s easy to want to take over and students who struggle with writing are often happy to let you do it. It is imperative that we push them to find their own voice, use their own words or guide them to find new ways to describe what they are trying to get out. Even if it isn’t a stellar A+ essay, practice and time will help them grow in this area.
10. Get Creative
Some kids love journaling and that can be a creative outlet. Sometimes simply giving kids a choice to write about a topic they enjoy can spark their creative juices. Maybe a student wants to write as a sports announcer and give a run down of a football game. Or they want to write their own fantasy story with dragons and wizards. Whatever they go with encourage them to pursue it in greater depth.